The growth in Seattle’s homelessness problem

by JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER, Seattle Displacement Coalition

Back in 1980, just three years after the Seattle Displacement Coalition was formed, there was no such thing as homelessness.

At that time, Seattle’s downtown had about 10,000 low-cost housing units — nearly all unsubsidized — inhabited by a diverse, multi-racial mix of low-income men and some women, many on Social Security or getting disability payments.

Those wanting work could walk a few blocks to the day-labor office and likely pick up part-time work on the docks or waterfront warehouses. If you were retired, there were bars, pool halls, hotel lobbies and longtime restaurants like the Turf, where you could just hang out, see friends and get a cheap, filling meal. 

Yes, there were an estimated 300 or so “skid road” denizens — mostly men, some with alcohol and addiction issues — who called the streets of downtown and Pioneer Square home. The missions helped these people, and there was little need for subsidized housing or a multi-million-dollar social service delivery system. Folks had built-in support systems intrinsic to the community. 

But something dramatically changed. In Seattle, as in cities across the country, in a little more than half a decade, office and commercial development exploded. Spurred in part by lucrative tax breaks and supply-side monetary policies during the Reagan administration, capitalists rediscovered the downtown core of major cities, including Seattle. 

The economy moved from blue-collar to white. Real wages for many fell, the day-labor offices closed and dock and warehouse jobs evaporated. 

Local politicians actively abetted the trend, shoveling our tax dollars downtown and upzoning for another 20 million square feet of office space. From 1980 to 1985, more than 4,000 units were demolished or abandoned, awaiting redevelopment. The hotels, the pool halls, the working-class bars and restaurants were nearly all wiped out, as well. 

Nationally, a million and a half downtown low-income units were lost during this period.

Federal budget cuts during the Reagan years compounded the problem. It was a perfect storm, and the coincidence of these forces gave rise to homelessness as we know it today.

Further displacement

By the late ‘80s, it was estimated there were a half-million people homeless nationally and about 3,000 to 4,000 locally. The area’s first One Night Count showed the problem had spread to affect families, women with kids, children, youths, seniors — not just a few skid-roaders. 

Some did point a finger at the rise in addiction and lack of mental health beds due to federal budget cuts, as the cause. These factors certainly contributed, but displacement and gentrification — along with callous disregard for their impacts in the inner-city by locally elected officials — were the root causes of homelessness back then, as they are now in 2016. 

By the end of the ’90s, the city had spent $150 million from two housing levies to stabilize low-income downtown housing at about 6,000 units, where it remains today — nearly all subsidized. And we now have an elaborate multi-million-dollar social service network filling the gap left by the irrevocable loss of more organic support systems prior to the ‘80s.

Benevolent city leaders didn’t bring about this stabilization. Low-income people, tenants, the homeless and their advocates marched, demonstrated and took over abandoned habitable buildings, demanding the city commit funds to acquire and reopen them.

Jumping to today, the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness is now in its 11th year. Made up of United Way, corporate, county and city electeds (and only a few advocates), the effort did add 6,300 units (we’re not knocking that) by cobbling together additional public and private contributions. More people and families were served. Yet, we now have 12,000 to 15,000 homeless countywide, most in Seattle.

In 2005, the Seattle Displacement Coalition said that unless our leaders put a stop to the continued accelerated loss of our existing stock of low-income units due to market forces, homelessness only would rise. For every one unit the 10-Year Plan produced, we’d lose three to four times that amount to demolition, condominium conversion, speculation and increased rent. 

Since then, easily, 20,000 low-cost units were lost to redevelopment in Seattle alone. But instead of addressing displacement head-on, the only change in the 10-Year Plan’s direction we’ve seen has been rebranding itself All Home. 

 More to come

Once again, there is high-profile coverage of the rise in homelessness — this time highlighted by the tragic shootings in the Jungle, the push for more tent cities and resident fears, sadly conflating homelessness with crime and scapegoating the homeless themselves. 

Our mayor, other political leaders and the press are pointing fingers, blaming the feds for a lack of funding and not enough services, shelter beds or mental health facilities —all true. But it’s shocking that almost nothing has been said linking homelessness to unprecedented levels of growth and the staggering loss of existing low-cost units we’re now seeing in Seattle. 

The mayor seems to care about solving homelessness. But he’s also hell-bent on upzoning for more growth, while offering absolutely nothing to combat even greater levels of displacement that will follow. 

Unless this changes, brace yourself. We could double spending on homelessness, but expect even more people pushed onto our streets. 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (, a low-income housing organization.

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